David Cameron and Nick Clegg will join forces next week to declare that the government is to embark on the biggest investment in the rail network since the Victorian era as ministers move to demonstrate their commitment to boosting economic growth. In an attempt to show a renewed sense of purpose, after last week's bruising rows over Lords reform, the prime minister and his deputy will announce the electrification of a series of lines and the symbolic reversal of some closures imposed in the 1960s by the Beeching axe.
Richard Beeching, the late chairman of the British Railways Board, became a hate figure for rail enthusiasts when he compiled a report that led to the closure of 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway lines. Fifty years later, Clegg and Cameron will confirm plans to reopen part of the Varsity line, from Oxford to Bletchley. The plans, which are likely to involve £10bn of capital investment between 2014 and 2019, are likely to involve:
• The electrification of the Midland mainline from London to the east Midlands and Sheffield. Clegg is MP for Sheffield Hallam. The Great Western line from London to Swansea, via Cardiff, will be electrified. The Cardiff Valley Network will also be electrified. Electrification is favoured by the rail industry because electric-powered trains are lighter than their diesel-powered counterparts and can accelerate more quickly. They are also less susceptible to breakdowns.
• New projects, to be named the Northern Hub, around Manchester to improve services across the north of England.
• Upgrading part of the east coast mainline from London to Newcastle and the spur to Leeds.
• Investment for improved railfreight to key ports such as Southampton and Felixstowe.
Stephen Joseph, executive chairman of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: "We welcome this programme, which with HS2 [the High Speed Two line from London to Birmingham] amounts to the biggest rail investment programme since the Victorians. It will make rail journeys quicker, smoother, quieter and greener and give more people a choice in how they travel. But we are concerned that rail users will face even higher fares to pay for it – the government is still committed to RPI+3% fares increases for the next two years. These projects will benefit the whole country and should not be paid for by already hard-pressed commuters who are already paying some of the highest fares in Europe."
The government's claim of record investment will be based on two politically contentious sources of finance to repay the investment needed: fares and the taxpayer. The farepayer is the biggest contributor, with inflation-busting fare increases helping generate £6.6bn for the railways last year. The 2009-2014 programme said passengers should foot more of the cost of expanding the network, with farepayers nearly doubling their contribution. Ministers have expressed hopes that a more cost-efficient railway will result in lower fare increases from 2014, but there is no sign of that happening. Fares are expected to rise by 3% above inflation until 2015 at least, despite the government targeting a £1bn cut in the annual cost of operating the network by the end of the decade.
The state provided a further £4bn in grants last year, but the taxpayer underpins the massive debts that fund the improvement work. Network Rail, which owns, operates and maintains tracks and stations, has borrowed £27bn over the last decade to fund its investment programme – a deficit underwritten by the taxpayer. The complex funding arrangements will allow the government to say that it is embarking on the biggest investment project since the Victorian era. The £10bn investment in new rail projects is around £2bn smaller than the current five-year spending plan, for 2009-2014, which included a £5.5bn upgrade of the Thameslink route through central London.
The reference to the Victorian era will provide a sober reminder of the risks of relying too heavily on private companies and passengers to pay for the work. Many Victorian railway entrepreneurs were driven to ruin by the high cost of the engineering work. This often happened after they battled against traditionalists, immortalised in the recent Cranford television drama based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novels.
The reopening of part of the Varsity Line, or the Brain Line, between Oxford and Bletchley, will be welcomed by traditionalists and by business leaders who believe it covers a crucial growth area. The line, which used to link Oxford and Cambridge, escaped the Beeching Axe but was closed in 1967.